Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Time to Shove 2013 Out the Door

I've heard very few comments from people about their desires to keep 2013 going forever. They seem to be more likely to say it would be wise to move forward.

After looking at a review of huge news stories I can certainly see why. It probably doesn't help that the news media business realizes that strife and conflict sell advertising. We witnessed bombings, floods, fires, typhoons, property and life destruction, continued strife in the Middle East, chemical weapons, and a Congress at home with the lowest ratings in history and no statesmen in sight. Those are only the top seven on my list. Of course, we also saw miracles too: children pulled from the rubble alive, acts of kindness, a royal baby, and a new Pope who seems to resemble the humility of his faith.

And, let me repeat, very few people have told me they
enjoyed this past year and they are ready for 2014.

If I could put in my own two cents' worth, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy senior citizen, I would add that I hope the world becomes a little warmer in 2014. No, I'm not talking about the weather or global warming. When I think about the past year, I remember so many situations where it became obvious to me that both technology and huge corporations are contributing to our lack of humanity and our increase in coldness. Trying to find anyone who will help you with a problem has become almost impossible. No one really seems to care.

Corporations are reaping tremendous profits at human costs. People are laid off because a streamlined company means lots more profit for those at the top. Downsizing leaves remaining employees to pick up the slack in the familiar 24-hour window with no pay increase and a lot less sleep. And if you have a problem with the phone company or the power company or your internet provider or your insurance company, good luck. You are simply one of millions and your problem is not their concern. This is especially true if they have no competition where you live.

Despite the new laws that govern cell phone use while driving, drivers continue to text and have accidents. Restaurants and homes are filled with families sitting around tables using their cell phones rather than having conversations. Go to any public park or
children's play area--like Discovery Depot back home in Illinois--and you will see parents sitting with their cell phones while their children play alone. An opportunity to learn together is once again thwarted. Please, don't get me started on video games and college students.

Oh, yes. Grumpy senior citizen emerges in this post. Time to tuck her away.

Instead, at the end of 2013, I will be grateful for the things over which I have some control that soften the whole first half of this post: children and grandchildren who continue to amaze me in so many ways; friends I have had for over thirty years who have given me gifts beyond imagining; the supportive colleagues with whom I have worked; a small town I love and enjoy returning to after the deep freeze of winter; the warm weather in Arizona that keeps my vitamin D level up;
my last aunt who died recently, joining a whole generation who raised me and is now gone but fondly remembered;
the people who have helped me along the way on this new writing career; the publishing company that said "yes"; and the authors who have inspired and taught me throughout my life.

There. I feel better.

Yes, perspective helps.

Bring on 2014 and may we all help make it a little warmer.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Seeking Mr. Connelly

It's been four years since I set out to see crime writer Michael Connelly at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale. The creator of Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, Connelly has generally launched his new books from here. Since he's written twenty-six novels, you'd
think I would have caught him sometime. But no. He's always here when I'm not. This year I laid my plans to be here ahead of him, and I succeeded.

Connelly has a new book called The Gods of Guilt. It's a Lincoln Lawyer (Mickey Haller) book and he's just
starting a tour to discuss it and sign copies. He spoke to an audience of several hundred people at the Arizona Biltmore last night (12/2) and was interviewed by Robert Anglen of the Arizona Republic. If you'd like to read an extension of that interview, check out this site: Anglen Interview.

The first Connelly book I read, years ago, was The Poet. I loved it. The story of a serial killer using clues from Edgar Allan Poe's writing, The Poet was a product of Connelly's crime reporting days working for newspapers. After that job in the early 90's, he became a writer full time and has written books primarily about two men: homicide detective Harry Bosch and defense lawyer Mickey Haller.

His new book, The Gods of Guilt, is the fifth Lincoln Lawyer book and it could be described as a character study. Mickey Haller is usually able to bend the law and use it to his advantage, but now, through a set of circumstances, he's dealing with an unhappy look back at his often shady legal career and what it has cost him. An attorney friend of Connelly's referred to a jury on a case he was discussing as "the gods of guilt" and it stuck with the author. But it refers to more than the jury in his new book. According to Connelly, lawyers leave law school with lots of noble ideals about the law, but Haller's stories show how lawyers handle cases and what really happens when they go to court. Not always a pretty picture.

An earlier Haller book, The Lincoln Lawyer, was made into a film starring Matthew McConaughey. Connelly was very complimentary about the job McConaughey did, but said the actor did not really resemble Heller physically, nor did Heller have a soft Southern accent.

Connelly's more heroic character is Harry Bosch who is easy to like because he is a good guy--a light going after and into darkness. I've always loved this character because he isn't perfect; he has his flaws and his darkness, much of it beginning as a tunnel rat in Viet Nam. Bosch is due to retire in 2015, but Connelly says that will not be the end of his stories. Yay!

The author is working on an exciting project with the Bosch series. Like Netflix with its new original programming, Amazon Prime is going to start creating its own original programming that you will be able to
Titus Welliver
see streamed on your computer. The new film, just shot, is being edited and stars Titus Welliver as Bosch. CBS This Morning did a story on this project and you can see it here. The new film is based on City of Bones and is being shot exclusively in Los Angeles. Connelly has total control over the project and he promises that Bosch fans will love this pilot.  He enthusiastically described a scene where the camera pans across the hills of LA and focuses on Boschs' house while the jazz piece, "Lullaby," plays in the background. The film is currently being edited.

One of the more unique stories of the night concerned how Connelly's interest in cops, police stations, and crime began. When he was 16 years old, he was working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Driving home one night, he stopped at a red light and watched a teenager on the sidewalk take off his shirt and fold an object in it. He placed it in some bushes. Then, wearing his tee shirt, he left, and an intrigued Connelly followed him by car to a biker bar. Once the boy went inside, Connelly doubled back and checked the bushes: the object was a gun. He called his dad from a pay phone and asked him what he should do. His father advised him to call the police and then he met Michael at the location. Connelly spent the night at the police station looking at mug shots and listening and watching.

He was hooked from that night on.

The audience asked several questions about Connelly's writing process. The author said that usually he wrote three or four early books about each man, concentrating on plot, before he was able to delve more deeply into their psyches. It generally
takes him ten months to write a book and it is a long process and a solitary one. He can't write books about LA in Florida, where he lives much of the time. So he has to return to LA when it's time to write.

Connelly had already signed hundreds of copies of his new book before the night began, but he was willing to personalize signatures and so I stood in line for quite some time with lots of others who are Connelly fans. He was very gracious, allowing anyone to take photos while he signed books.

It was a wonderful night, definitely worth the trip to AZ a little early so I could finally meet this author I've so admired. It's good to know he doesn't see me as a stalker.

Monday, November 11, 2013

November 22, Fifty Years Later

National Geographic Channel recently aired the first of several documentaries and movies about November 22, 1963. I'd like to say that date seems like yesterday, but in actuality it seems like long ago. At the time I was seventeen, a junior in high school, on the way to a debate tournament at Bradley University. We heard of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's death on the car radio.

As I watched those documentaries today, I thought about how ill prepared we were for such a tragedy. And now we have lived through so many more in the
intervening fifty years. I also considered how much life has changed all around us, but those images have stayed frozen in time in our heads and in our hearts. Watching the horrified faces and tears of people outside Parkland Hospital in Dallas brings back the same feeling of grief and dread, even after fifty years.

The black and white footage shows immense changes
in media coverage. Without the technology we have today, information was sparse and often inaccurate. The President was reported to be receiving blood transfusions and his eventual death was actually disclosed by one of the priests who gave him last rites. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was reported to have had either a heart attack or been shot also. Neither report was true. Long after Lee Harvey Oswald (often called "Lee Harold Oswald" by reporters), left the Texas Book Depository, the Secret Service was still looking for him in the building because he was reportedly still there.

Besides so many inaccuracies, the way the 1963 news media operated is also startling from a 21st century perspective. The local Dallas news station shows reporters on camera smoking cigarette after cigarette and interviewing people while holding telephones to their ears--often both ears. No unseen ear phones here. The news anchor actually explained that they would have an update on Texas Governor Connolly's condition the following morning since the news went off the air at night. [Why, oh why, did they have to invent the 24-hour news cycle?]

The news footage told me things I didn't know. I thought that people leaving massive flowers in someone's memory was a phenomenon of more recent times like Princess Di's funeral. But many people left memorials for Kennedy outside Parkland Hospital and at the location where he was shot.
I also learned that a casket was brought to the hospital to transport the body, and the funeral home's employee reported that the First Lady took off her wedding ring and put it on the President's finger before they closed the casket. During these early hours no one knew where Lyndon Johnson was. He had been whisked away to "an unknown location" to keep him safe and he would soon be sworn in. It was ironic to hear Mrs. Rose Kennedy talking on the phone to LBJ on Air Force One and telling him how much she knew he loved her son. In the intervening years the truth of the Kennedys/Johnson relationship would say otherwise.
Finally, I didn't realize that Lee Harvey Oswald's funeral was held in secrecy in Fort Worth with only the family attending. News men acted as pall bearers since there was no one else. It was not open to the public.

Even now, after fifty years, the images persist. It was mayhem when Kennedy was shot and his car left the motorcade and rushed him to the hospital. We have watched the home video of that scene over and over. Also seen and remembered is the footage of people waiting outside Parkland Hospital for word of the President's condition, tears streaming down their
shocked faces.
Even the Secret Service men were in tears, as was the judge, Sarah Hughes, while she performed the oath of office to LBJ on Air Force One. I saw the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby live since the television station covered it as he was transported to Dallas County Jail. I remember my total disbelief as I rose from a chair in our family room.

That same day we learned a new vocabulary of state funerals: the rider-less, black-draped horse with the
boots on backwards; the casket lying in state in the Capitol rotunda; the mournful notes of the funeral dirge; Mrs. Kennedy in black with her young children, and,of course, John's salute; and the internment at Arlington Cemetery near the Eternal Flame. So many of the participants that day are now gone too.

I'm not sure my children or grandchildren will ever understand the shared grief of my generation over what we lost that day. Oh, I know we're baby boomers and prone to re-examining and whining over the memories of our lost youth. But on November 22, we shared the total disbelief that this could happen in our country to a young, vibrant, and handsome president, leaving behind a grieving widow and two small children. We shared the loss of innocence from those three shots fired that day. We shared the loss of what might have been.

And we will always share the images of that dark procession down Pennsylvania Avenue when the world and its leaders came to Washington, D.C., and shared our loss too. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Review of Thomas H. Cook's "Sandrine's Case"

Seldom has a book moved me to tears, but Sandrine's Case did because of the beauty of its prose and its exquisite ending. Do NOT read the ending first!

Professor Sam Madison is on trial for the murder of his wife, Sandrine, who was found dead, naked, in their bed in a posed position. But did he murder his 46-year-old wife, who was also a professor at Coburn College in their small Southern town, or did she commit suicide?

While this book might be called a mystery, it is
actually more of a character study of Sam Madison. It is also the story of a marriage, an institution best understood by the participants and largely judged or misjudged by those on the ouside observing the marriage. This is especially true in the small town of Coburn. At one point his daughter, Alexandria, tries to define marriage. She says, "Maybe that's why married people try so hard to make things work. It's not that they love each other every day, right? It's that they love each other enough to stay through the days they don't." The Madison's marriage and their history are tightly wound around the outcome of Sam's trial.

Through Sam's thoughts and seamlessly perfect prose journeys back and forth in time, we learn the story of Sam and Sandrine's marriage and their history together. Hardly dead in the true sense of that word,
Sandrine is a living presence in Sam's mind and in the story. She was lovely, vivacious, brilliant, utterly dedicated to her students, and kind.  So what had attracted her to Sam Madison, who is so cold that she calls him a sociopath shortly before her death? What are we to think when he begins to suspect that his dead wife has actually put into motion a plan that will frame him and lead to his own execution and his loss of their daughter's love?

Each chapter of the novel is another day in the short murder trial of Sam Madison, a trial seen through his eyes. Despite Cook's flawless prose, Madison is hardly a narrator we can like. Cold and cynical, he has always thought of himself as far superior to other Coburn inhabitants. As each neighbor, lover, or co-worker testifies, we actually hear his/her testimony from Sam's point of view. Sam's dark thoughts seem to lend credence to the theory of the police detective sworn to pin the murder on him. Cook creates suspense as only he can, and the reader is turning pages quickly to find out whether Sam will be found guilty.

As the trial plays out, the reader goes back and forth.
Did he do it? Did she do it? Who is guilty and who is innocent? How do their past and their marriage play such a significant role in the final outcome of the trial? In the end this beautiful novel is a story of redemption. I loved Thomas H. Cook's The Chatham School Affair, but his lyrical prose, his flawless movement back and forth in time, his utterly surprising ending, and his masterful use of suspense put Sandrine's Case at the top of my list.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Upstairs at the McCullough House

After my sojourn across the pond, it's back to the
McCullough House, a Victorian home that will be an 1893 setting in my second mystery. We've explored the public rooms downstairs. Now it's time to take the broad staircase to the second and third floors.

The wealthy of the late 1800s generally had sparsely furnished bedrooms. These were private areas of the house so ostentation wasn't necessary. Usually the bedrooms on the second floor contained an easy chair, table, washstand with pitcher, bureau, and chamber pots.

The beds were made of brass, iron, or woods such as
mahogany, oak, cherry, or ash.  I imagine the McCulloughs had high-posted beds because the ceilings were high and the floors cold. They probably had feather beds since the wealthy could afford such luxury. The walls in the rooms were painted or wallpapered in a hardly memorable pattern. They may have had three or four bedrooms on the second floor, but the master bedroom was in the front with windows looking out over the street. At some point the owners also added a bathroom in the 1800's sense of the word.

A bathroom was separate from a water closet. Let's consider first the lowly water closet. Through most of the 1800s, the privy was outdoors and was called an outhouse, a house of office, or a necessary house. In fact, there was much resistance to bringing this whole unsanitary business inside the house. Not until WWI did "bathrooms" become tubs, sinks, and toilets. In 1910, Sears, Roebuck sold the three together as a "suite" with standard parts put out by, appropriately, the American Standard company. So perhaps the McCullough house began with an outside privy that was later moved into a small closet on the second floor.

Also on the second floor was the bathroom. This was strictly for bathing and when we lived there in the late 1960s, the second floor did have a large bathroom that accommodated a claw-foot tub. But in the late 1800s, this tub was made of wood, zinc, or painted tin. Often a bathroom had a fireplace and might have started as a small bedchamber. The Victorians avoided wallpaper or wood paneling in their bathrooms because of roaches. Instead, they used glazed ceramic tile in white, gray, or buff colors. The more expensive--I'd like to think the McCulloughs fit this category--used pearl, gold, or rose hues in their tiles. Can you imagine, as a domestic, making multiple trips carrying water up the back stairway from the kitchen to fill this tub and keep it warm so the owners could bathe? You would probably have been thankful people didn't bathe as often in the 1800s.

Probably a bit larger than the McCullough House,
 but you get the picture!
The second floor is not as interesting as the top floor of the house--the ballroom. It's possible the third floor also had a couple of small, lackluster rooms for servants' quarters too. But the top floor was a ballroom with windows overlooking the main street, Broadway. Refreshments would have been available in the ballroom and possibly they had a midnight supper on the first floor followed the dancing.

All young ladies were given a dance program and
gentlemen wrote their names in for specific dances. Never would an unmarried woman dance more than twice with the same man. Until the late 1880s, husbands and wives never danced together in public (disregard what you see from Hollywood.) The favored dances were the waltz, polka, quadrille, gallop, cotillion, and Virginia Reel. But young ladies were warned against overexertion in Godey's Lady's Book. This was probably prudent since they were in corsets that cut off their lung capacities. 

The finest evening wear would have been essential for the McCullough's dance invitations. 

Gloves and fans were required. The fans were made of silk, tortoise shell, lace, or ivory, and often had beads, hand-painted designs, or feathers. A lady suspended her fan on a chain from her waist while dancing. She also learned the "language of fans" so she could flirt with young men.

It would be easy to imagine the evening promenade of
men and women in fancy dress walking up the main staircase of the McCullough house to spend a pleasant evening dancing in the ballroom and drinking punch. Tightly enforced social codes required the unmarried to move through their regulated lives under the watchful eyes of the married adults. (Egads, another reason marriage was the ding dong bell of doom.) And, when the dance ended, the ladies would obtain their evening wraps, be escorted down the staircase once again, and climb into their conveyances to go home through the quiet streets of Monmouth. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Travelling with Ghosts, Mysteries, and Murders

I'm taking a little time off from 19th century Victorian architecture and furnishings to write about a recent trip to Europe, but be advised that even a trip back into history has an effect on my thoughts about past, present, and plots. Sixteen of us went on a tour to England, Wales, and Scotland sponsored by a local bank. It was a whirlwind tour, with 7 to 8-hour plane rides included in the ten-day schedule. One day we had breakfast in Wales, lunch in England, and dinner in Scotland. Whew! The pace was a killer.

My favorite day, of course, was our visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon, seeing all the Shakespeare sites that I've taught about for so many years. The most impressive was Anne Hathaway's cottage with its extensive flower gardens. Trinity Church, where
Shakespeare was baptized and buried, was steeped in timelessness, more ancient than I could have imagined. What a stately and appropriate setting for the resting place of the genius of the ages. 

Other sites  we visited included Stonehenge; Edinburgh, with its Harry Potter architecture; Ruthin Castle in Wales; York, with its cobblestone walks and medieval city walls; Gretna Green, (where I looked for Wickham and Lydia); the Welsh countryside, the Cotswolds, and the Lake District (I think God must live there); and, of course, London.
The Lake District

And, despite all of these amazing places and people, my favorite night of the trip remains the evening spent in London with a former student and his partner, Emmanuelle. Rick Kellum, one of my students from the 80's, is just on the cusp of becoming a published author.
We had so much fun thinking about what's coming for him. I don't exaggerate when I say it was a magical night at a charming French restaurant--wonderful food and great conversation--along the Thames River with the London skyline lit up in the background. This is a special memory tucked away forever.

I also noticed that my thinking about places has changed. As I experienced the UK, I saw mysteries, thrillers, and ghost stories lurking everywhere. The
history of these countries is filled with darkness, violence, executions, ghosts, "Out damn spot!", brooding on the moors, and murders for power. This is a good sign. I've begun to think about what could happen in real life that might become part of my writing.

At Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, is a military installation--lots of barbed wire, military equipment, and signs that say "Keep Out." [Mind: What could be
lurking behind those closed walls? Military secrets? Plots? And could they connect with a murder at Stonehenge with lots of blood on one of the bluestones?]

In Scotland,Edinburgh Castle is one of the first places where we were told that ghosts walk. I imagine, since many of the sites we saw went back to 1000 A.D., that ghosts are more plentiful there than in our upstart, 350-year-old U.S. history.

Ruthin Castle, Wales

We were told that a particular ghost walks the passages at Ruthin Castle in Wales where we spent a night. Built in 1277, this castle dates back to the time of King Arthur and also has a part in the Robin Hood legend. It was owned by King Edward I, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Charles I. An officer in Charles I's army had an affair with a village girl and his wife found out and killed the hapless wench with an axe. Because of that crime of passion, the murderess's body was not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. Now she roams the castle battlements and is known as the grey lady. Needless to say, I did not get up in the middle of the night to get a glass of milk from the castle's refrig. [Note to self: could lead to a great plot where the tragedy is repeated in the present.]

While we were in London, the Queen was unexpectedly visted by a thief who managed to get
past Buckingham Palace's security. Because of her Jubilee, the Queen's apartments had an unusual display of royal jewels. The intruder was caught, but not before my imagination considered some thriller scenarios [Think: possible film rights.]

York is a medieval town with cobblestone streets, city walls, and beautiful cathedrals. One of the most impressive is the York Minster (building begun in 1291.) This town has more ghosts per square foot than any town in England. It could certainly become the location for a mystery with modern day ghost hunters or a double plot with the past and present colliding. [Possible future trip as a tax write-off to do research?]

A visit to Oxford and the yard at Christ's Church would not be complete without a pint lifted in honor of Inspectors Morse and Lewis from "Mystery" on PBS. It was a sleepy Sunday when we set foot in Oxford, but
it wasn't hard to imagine Morse's red and black Jaguar driving through the narrow streets with Lewis beside him, quietly tolerating Morse's criticism with a look of pain on his face. [Note to self: chemistry between main characters needs to be clear and can be humorous at times.]

Coming back to the tiny town of Monmouth after seeing all of these old, historical sites makes me think about the role of setting and history on a plot. My fictional, little town of Endurance is modeled after Monmouth, which, coincidently, was the name of a town in England where a diminutive ship called the Mayflower set sail to start a new adventure.

It's time to rest up a bit after that intense road/air trip, but while I get my sleep straightened around, my mind is continuing to sort through all those interesting possibilities for my writing.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Researching the Setting for "Marry in Haste"

     My second mystery, Marry in Haste, will have a
secondary plot that takes place in 1893, and its setting is a Victorian house I used to live in when I first moved to Monmouth, Illinois, in 1968. My previous post described the front two rooms and today I'm imagining the remainder of the first floor.

     Visitors to the McCullough House in 1893 saw the public hallway and the front parlor. But beyond that parlor was a second family parlor that was used as a sitting room for family-oriented activities. It was considered a private part of the home, used just by the family. Often furniture in this parlor consisted of castoffs from the front parlor as furniture was replaced. The north wall held a fireplace that probably had a small clock and china or candles on the mantle. Perhaps copies of Godey's, Peterson's and The Household graced a small table next to a rocking chair or easy chair. These magazines printed monthly columns on decorating, furniture, floor coverings, and other household hints. As time went by, the family might have turned this second parlor into a nursery. When we lived in the house in 1968, this second parlor was combined with the front parlor into one massive living room with no dividing wall.

     In 1968, the west side of this family parlor had a door that went into a bedroom and small bathroom. It is likely that in 1893, this room was a library/office for the owner of the house. It was a gentleman's retreat with an outside entrance on the west side of the room. The large closet and the bathroom, both there in 1968, were probably areas in 1893 that held only occasionally needed books and articles. It is possible the small bathroom was a water closet in 1893. The occupants of the house were wealthy enough to have inside plumbing. But bathing back then was done in a larger room on the second floor. 

The office was very masculine with hunting or nature scenes on the dark, painted walls. Built-in bookcases held both books and files of information from the
businesses he owned. In fact, he probably had a safe to hold important documents. A low table for books and magazines and an easy chair and footstool added to his comfort. The largest item in the room was a heavy mahogany desk. Even now, it is easy to imagine the owner of the house, sitting at his desk or reading in his chair, while all the activity of the household is only a hum beyond his inner sanctum. The huge, formal staircase that rose from the front hallway went partly over this room. Occasionally, he might hear his wife or children walking up the front staircase.

     North of the second parlor was the dining room, a pleasant room separated from the parlor by pocket doors and from the kitchen on the west by a doorway whose opening was probably hidden by a free-standing screen. With the kitchen so close, this room would have been very hot, especially in the summer.The dining room had its own entrance on the east side of the house. This room was used for breakfast, afternoon teas or luncheons for the lady's friends, and evening dinners. A large dining room table sat below a hanging light. A built-in or standing china cabinet was on the north side of the room, used for the myriad pieces of flatware, stemware, and china. Still lives of fruit and a chair railing lined the walls, and a sideboard sat against the west wall near the kitchen entrance. In 1893, the family ate large meals. Breakfast, for example, consisted of cooked potatoes, bread, cooked or raw fruit, and beef, fish, or ham. Meat was a huge staple of any meal.

The kitchen was west of the dining room. In 1968, it seemed a tiny room to sustain such a huge household. Somewhere in the past, someone had divided the kitchen into two rooms, the smaller area on the north being a breakfast nook with a built-in table and benches. But in 1893, the breakfast nook was probably a pantry with an outside door and small porch which held the ice box. This made it easier for the ice delivery since it was outside. The kitchen also had an outside door on the west side. If you turned left at that door you walked up the servant's stairway to the upper two floors. Turn right and a set of stairs went outside. Inside the kitchen were a coal or wood-burning stove; two tables (one
for food preparation and one for service); one or more wet sinks; and a tall, cylindrical, hot water heater for boiling water for laundry and cooking. It is very likely this household would use the "latest gadgets" in the kitchen--things like meat grinders, butter churns, and coffee grinders. A shelf containing cookbooks, home manuals, and all-purpose household encyclopedias with the latest advice was within arm's reach.

     The kitchen was a beehive of activity. The servants did washing or sent it out to be done on Mondays. (Even when I was growing up in the 1950s, the law said you couldn't burn anything outside on Monday because it was "wash day" and people hung clothes out to dry on clothes lines in their back yards.) Bread baking took a full 24 hours between rising and punching down and baking. Besides cooking, the mistress and her servants canned food in this room, an activity leading to aching backs on hot, humid afternoons. It is likely that the two influential families who lived in this house (see earlier post) had several servants who had rooms on the third floor. They would have spent a great percentage of their days in this kitchen.

Alas, we had no servants in 1968 to cook or do the laundry. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Victorian Homes: Public Spaces

Part of my second mystery, Marry in Haste, will take place in a large Victorian home in 1893. I lived in such a house when I first moved to Monmouth, Illinois in the 1960s. In my last post I discussed the history of the W.W. McCullough house, and now I'm continuing that thread with a post about two of the rooms in the house: the front hallway and the front public parlor. Both were meant to impress because the worth of a woman and the wealth of a man back then were measured by the state of their home. After extensively researching the houses and furnishings of that time, I can imagine what the McCullough house might have looked like in 1893.

W.W. McCullough's house at 402 W. Broadway would have been
impressive. It contained three floors and a full basement with a staircase in the front going up to the bedrooms and a ballroom, and stairs in the back for the servants. [Besides the front entrance, this photo shows an entrance on the west side of the house that went into a library/office. The entrance was gone when I lived there in the 1960s.]

At the main entrance, visitors, facing north, walked up the six porch steps to a large, wooden front door with a round, brass bell knob. They first brushed the dirt and dust from their shoes since the streets and sidewalks were not yet bricked this far west of the Square. Then they pulled on the knob to ring an inside bell, summoning a servant. According to the city directories of that time, servants were of various ethnicities, some of their last names being Blusma, Martin, McCleary, Quinlan, and Wennerstrom.

The front hallway--designed to impress--had a high ceiling, which afforded the opportunity to use fashionable, leaded windows high on the west wall and a hanging light fixture. The visitor faced a wide staircase whose carpeting continued the same dark, richly colored Brussels carpet on the floor of the hallway. Walnut railings and woodwork with ornamental carvings decorated the staircase. At the first landing, a large vase sat in the corner with tall ferns. A family member reached the landing, turned right, and followed another set of stairs to the second floor. The walls of this front hallway were painted a light color with wooden wainscoting and a chair rail dividing the tall walls into thirds.

In the hallway were three critical items: a hall tree, a chair, and a card receiver. The hall tree had curved arms to hold canes, umbrellas, and walking sticks. Also, a space for hats and coats surrounded a mirror on the hall tree where a caller could check her appearance before meeting the family. A chair was placed nearby so a visiting servant might sit and wait for an answer to a message he'd delivered. Sometimes the chair was actually part of the hall tree.

The card receiver was often silver-plated and sat on a small stand.
From 1870-1910, calling and card leaving rituals were crucial for women "of society." Ladies would "call" in the afternoon. If the owner was "at home," the visitor left two of her husband's cards on the receiver but kept her own. If the lady of the house was "not at home," the visitor left all three cards. The response might be an actual visit from the lady of the house or a written note delivered by a servant. 

A set of beautifully carved pocket doors opened to the visitor's right and led into a front (or public) parlor. In the late 1960s, when I lived in this house, the downstairs was a massive room that went from the front to the back of the house with no barriers. But in the late 1800s, the downstairs contained a wall across the middle of the living room, separating a public parlor and a private, or family, parlor. Let's consider what the front parlor might have looked like.

A Victorian parlor in Galena, Il.
First, it was designed to make a strong impression of wealth, health, moral values, and happiness, and it was cleaned daily. It had a chandelier--probably gas-lit by the late 1800s. Gas lighting was in use during this decade and the wall sconces were still apparent when I lived in the house in the 1960s. Other lighting came from south and east windows that were draped in large-patterned lace curtains. The walls would have been painted in light tints--cream, pearl, olive, or gray--or might have been wallpapered in a delicate scroll or vine pattern. On the floor was a combination of Brussels carpet with colored rush matting around the edges of the room.

A table generally graced the center of a Victorian parlor and on it was a leather-bound, hefty, family Bible, along with other treasures. A corner etagere displayed artifacts the family had collected: shells, figurines, and dried flowers. As for the furniture, the front parlor held gentlemen's chairs (high backs with arms) and side chairs. Ladies' chairs had no arms and, thus, no back support. This allowed women to position petticoats and skirts and encouraged the female posture requirements of that day. Gender defined by furniture! Often the chair backs would be covered with
washable doilies and antimacassars to keep them free of hair pomade. They placed the furniture symmetrically against the walls with small and large works of art hung just above them. This helped balance the high ceilings. Mirrors, portraits, and family photographs decorated the room and also free-standing easels or pedestals held paintings and prints. The chairs were made of mahogany and the tables topped with marble.

The east wall of 402 was rounded outward about halfway to the dining area on the north end of the house. This was probably the point at which a wall divided the front and back parlors in 1893. 

My next post will imagine the rest of the main floor in 1893: the back parlor, dining room, kitchen, and library.